Fluency in music, like fluency in language, does not require the ability
to read or write. So, How Music REALLY Works! has no music notation.
How Music REALLY Works!—A Music-Notation-Free Zone
In case somebody has ever advised you that learning how to read and
write music notation will make you a better songwriter or performer, here
are just a few of the many songwriters who did alright without notation
And some non-songwriters ... performers who managed to play and
sing their way to glory without knowing how to read or write music:
Musical skill is normal in the human species. Not a rare talent. Most
people have the potential to sing and to play an instrument with
reasonable competence, even if they’ve never tried. Even if they’ve tried
and failed (usually due to inept instruction). Ability to read or write music
notation has nothing to do with it.
Same with songwriting. Contrary to common belief, it’s not a special
gift. Anybody can write a song. Even a five-year-old child.
But hardly anybody has one vital skill required to create brilliant,
The main part of this book focuses on techniques you can use to create
accessible, memorable, emotionally powerful music and lyrics. The biological
connection between music and emotion in the human species goes back
hundreds of thousands of years, as you’ll see in Chapters 1 and 9. Music
evolved as an emotional communication system. And 99.9% of
songwriters have no idea how it works or how to exploit it. It’s the
essential skill they most need, and most lack. That’s why, for example, the
companion to this book, the
Gold Standard Song
List has only 5,000 songs on it (from a
full 100 years of songwriting), instead of 5,000,000 or 500,000,000 songs.
You have but one instrument at your disposal that you can use to
create emotionally powerful music: the 100,000-year-old neural organ
inside your skull. If you don’t understand how it works musically, you have
no advantage over a million other aspiring songwriters and performers.
If you don’t know how to manipulate certain elements of music and lyrics
to evoke emotion, you will fail in the marketplace as a songwriter and as a
performer of your original songs. Potential audiences do not want to hear
emotionally anaemic songs, no matter how well performed.
Technology will not save you. All the digital hardware and software in
the world can’t come remotely close to emulating what your brain can do
when it comes to creating emotionally evocative music and lyrics.
In short, if you want to break away from the masses of struggling
musicians, you have to learn how to use your brain’s evolved musical and
linguistic modules to create accessible, memorable, emotionally powerful music and
First, you need to learn the technical elements covered in this book. Learn
the skills Lennon and McCartney spent years acquiring before they ever
wrote a song. They didn’t read music, but by the time they started
recording original songs, they had absorbed an awful lot of technical stuff
Their technical knowledge did not come to them magically. Growing up
in Liverpool in the 1940s and early 1950s, Lennon and McCartney
absorbed a good deal of their musical know-how from the classic songs of
great masters such as the Gershwin brothers, Noel Coward, Cole Porter,
and Irving Berlin. McCartney learned much about how music works from
his father, a proficient amateur pianist who also played trumpet in a jazz
Additionally, the lads devoured the best of American country, folk, and
blues, thanks to young Liverpool sailors who brought home the latest
records. Lennon and McCartney met in 1957, a couple of years after rock
’n’ roll (as it was known then) had become an international phenomenon.
An early poster of Lennon’s pre-Beatles band, The Quarry Men,
advertises the band’s repertoire in this order:
Country • Western • Rock ‘n’ Roll • Skiffle
In the years before getting signed to a label, The Beatles played
hundreds of gigs in England and Germany—covers of now classic songs.
Once signed, they recorded covers of early rock ’n’ roll tunes such as
“Long Tall Sally,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” and “Matchbox.” They also
covered some decidedly non-rock material such as “A Taste of Honey”
and Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway show tune, “Till There Was You,”
from The Music Man. Learning all those covers—everything from wartime
dance hall tunes to American rockabilly and blues—and playing them over
and over and over instilled in Lennon and McCartney a deep
understanding and feel for the way great songwriters meld technical and
psychological elements to create memorable songs. Any intelligent
songwriter who learns how to do this (one way or another, not necessarily
the way Lennon and McCartney mastered it), and applies it in his or her own
original creative style, can compose brilliant songs consistently. Songwriters who
do not learn how to do this (the vast majority) turn out mediocre material.
As you go through this book, don’t focus on rote-memorization of
details. Just take in the major concepts (more on this in a minute). After a
while, the most important techniques, summarized at the ends of
Chapters 6 through 11, will become second nature to you. Habitual.
Once you’ve mastered the technical stuff, then write with
unpremeditated emotional abandon. Without thinking about whether your
methods are “technically correct.” It’s like learning and applying any skill.
Riding a bike or a horse. First you nail the technique, then you take off
and explore. (Even when you’ve become highly skilled, you’ll find
yourself editing and revising initial drafts to make each musical and lyrical
component as powerful and memorable as possible.)
Why this Book Is a Classic Western (And Why You Will Need a Horse)
In Chapter 2, you’ll learn why music does not “progress” the way science
and technology progress. Instead, artists, including songwriters and
performers, aim to create classics. (Artists who don’t aspire to create
classics are hacks.)
The popular songs of English-speaking nations of the West serve as
this book’s reference base for examples and illustrations. Especially
the 5,000 classic songs of Western popular music you’ll find at
Gold Standard Song List,.
by Western songwriters such as Bob Dylan, 2Pac, The Beatles, Hank
Williams, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Ferron, the Gershwin brothers,
James Brown, Wu-Tang Clan, David Bowie, Annie Lennox, Bob Marley,
Duke Ellington, the McGarrigle sisters, Tom Waits, and a thousand others.
How Music REALLY Works!, then, is a
That means, to get the most from this book, you will need a horse. If you
don’t already have one, Sadie and Ellie Sue over at the Dodge City Horse
Store can probably fix you up. If they don’t have one to your liking, two
stagecoaches leave Dodge every morning, one eastbound to Wichita and
the other southbound to Amarillo. Good horse stores in both towns.
If you need a drink (and you probably will because you’ll find some bits
of this book as dull as a lecture on the geology of gravel), ride on over to
the Wrong Ranch Saloon. Ms Puma owns the place and pours the Jack
Daniel’s. She has a heart of gold because, in accordance with her life’s
role as a cliche in a Classic Western, she used to be a prostitute but has
changed her ways.
These days, as she tends bar at the Wrong Ranch, Ms Puma has a lot of
interesting things to say on all kinds of topics, such as intelligent design
and particle physics. For instance, she can explain to you in plain English
why it is that, as quarks and gluons get closer together, the forces
between them get weaker and weaker. Which, as folks in these parts
realize, simply defies common sense.
If you have a problem with horse stealers or other nasties, get hold of
Marshal McDillon. You’ll most likely find him over at the Wrong Ranch
Saloon, visiting with Ms Puma a lot. If you can’t find the Marshal, look for
Deputy Fester, who hangs around Sadie and Ellie Sue’s horse store.
Which is ironic, considering Deputy Fester can’t ride a horse to save his
If you have a medical problem, Doc Yada-Yadams might be able to treat
you. If he’s sober. Which is seldom. But without him, this Classic Western
would lack another important cliche, the town drunk.
In short, not much. Here’s a list:
• How to count to 32 (well, maybe all the way up to 64).
• How to locate and play the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G on a piano
or guitar or other instrument.
• Roman numerals from “I” up to “VII”.
• The meaning of simple ratios, such as “2:1", as in “At the Wrong
Ranch Saloon, Moosehead beer outsells Diet Coke 2:1”.
• How to find, explore, and exploit the Gold Standard Song List (Hint:
• What songs to play on your mouth organ for your horse as you ride
along in the Deep Purple of Twilight Time through the Blue
Shadows on the Trail.
The farther you travel, the more you will need to get acquainted with
the Gold Standard Song List and the instructions at that website on how to
listen to free, legal excerpts of songs, and how to get the lyrics for any of
All songs spring from songwriters’ information-processing brains. Great
songwriters reveal in their songs (both music and lyrics) an intuitive
understanding of the evolutionary biology of music. That’s the subject of
Songs become timeless classics if they tap into shared human
universals, aspects of evolved behaviour that have not changed in tens or
hundreds of thousands of years. As you go through this book, you’ll learn
how to apply insights about how your brain works in the process of
creating and performing your songs. And how your listeners’ brains work
when they hear your songs.
Is it tough to learn?
In a word, nah. It ain’t rocket science.
Here’s the thing. You can’t separate biology from the arts. That
includes music. The human brain’s built-in receptors for patterns and
sequences become activated at several levels when the brain senses
patterns in melodies and chords and rhythm and lyrics. How Music
REALLY Works! shows you how to exploit your brain’s adaptation for
music in your songwriting and performing technique.
You’ll probably write much better songs,
once you gain an understanding of how the brain processes music and
lyrics, and the emotional connections it makes. (You’ll perform better, too).
That does not mean you have to memorize all the technical details in
this book. Instead, you only need to understand the essence of what
you’re reading. You can go through the material at whatever pace you’re
comfortable with. No need to rush. Your brain will retain the gist of the
material that interests you, the stuff you find yourself having fun
with—especially the territory that’s new for you. When you’re done, of
course you’ll need to look up specific details from time to time to refresh
your memory. But you don’t need to memorize lengthy passages to
acquire useful information.
The oft-quoted philosopher, Huckleberry Finn, best sums up where
you’re headed in the following pages, and why:
I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest because
Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t
stand it. I been there before.